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Battle of Lake Erie 

 

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war with Britain. The very same day that Madison signed the declaration of war, twenty-six year old Oliver Hazard Perry was ordered for duty and gained command of the vessels in Newport. Commodore Isaac Chauncey was given command of the naval forces on Lake Erie and Ontario early on in the War of 1812. Chauncey sought a commander for the Lake Erie squadron and Perry was assigned this role in January of 1813. However, he intended to have Perry be his second in command. From the start Perry wanted to be independent from Chauncey, which he even complained about in a letter to the Navy Department. 

At the start of his assignment, Perry faced the dilemma of having a shortage of men for his ships and at one point the government reduced the number of Perry’s men. However, these shortages would not stop Perry from accomplishing what he was set out to do: prove the strength of his men and bring victory to his country. The government created two drafts of reinforcements for Lake Erie. When the men arrived, Perry was not happy. He was mainly distraught about how few of the new men were trained sailors. All the trained seamen were sent to Lake Ontario and the leftovers were referred to Perry. Nonetheless, he accepted the men and made the best of what he had. Initially, America did not possess the naval power needed to match the British on the Great Lakes. Perry quickly made the necessary arrangements for the construction of a small fleet on Lake Erie. Then on September 10, 1813, the British navy attacked in what became known as the Battle of Lake Erie at Put-In-Bay. With the incoming fight, Perry instructed each vessel in his squadron to take on a designated opponent. He also commanded his ships to follow each other closely in a single file line, with the Lawrence at the lead. The Lawrence was the vessel that Perry was stationed on until it was badly damaged during the battle and he switched his command to the Niagara. The cannon fire and guns caused horrific injuries to the sailors and an enormous amount of damage to the ships for both sides. In his diary, Dr. Usher Parsons had described the destruction of the battle.  He had “cut off 6 legs in the cockpit, which were nearly divided by cannon balls.” Due to the shortage of men, Perry asked the injured ones to return to battle if they felt they were able to.   In the end, Perry succeeded in defeating the British fleet on Lake Erie and was promoted to captain.

Under Perry’s command, an undermanned and short supplied fleet managed to defeat a squadron of vessels from the world’s strongest Navy.  As a result of this victory, the British started to lose control of the war and their military organization, as well as supplies and Native American allies. Perry’s victory in this naval battle is considered a major turning point for the War of 1812. For the rest of the war, Britain was no longer a serious threat to the American forces west of the Niagara region. Control of Lake Erie allowed American troops to reclaim Detroit and defeat the Native Americans that had allied with the British at the Battle of Thames. Perry also joined forces at the Battle of the Thames. 

Perry resigned his command of Lake Erie in October 1813 and Master Commandant Jesse Elliott received the position.  In November of 1813, Perry finally returned home to Newport and received command there.  He was greeted as a hero and his victory was celebrated across the states; he would partake in various victory tours to the nation’s foremost cities.